In the summer of 2020, I wrote an in-depth piece entitled “Why is it so difficult for Syrian Kurdish parties to unite.” [af] http://actafabula.net/why-is-it-so-difficult-for-syrian-kurdish-parties-to-unite/ [/af] Almost three years later, in the summer of 2022, the intra Syrian Kurdish talks are halted by the Kurdish National Council (KNC). Here is my follow-up interview with Syrian Kurdish political writer Mohamed Ismail, member of the board of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and head of the KNC-delegation in the intra Syrian Kurdish talks. The KNC is the main Kurdish rival to the PKK’s sister party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Unlike the PYD, it is in opposition to the regime of Bashar Assad, and as such, it is a member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC).
Ismail explained that the KNC is subjected to the continuous harassment as a result of the violations that occur on a daily basis, offices of the KNC were ignited, once again, the continuous arrest of members and supporters of the KNC and the threat to the families of the Rosh Peshmerga, a force of the KNC in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan. “The Americans say, so far, the talks haven’t stopped, but they are not in a rush about it,” Ismail says. “To be fair, in the absence of progress, the talks have been halted. And it seems there is a difference within the US Administration regarding Syria.”
“There is a difference of opinions in the Biden Administration on the situation in Syria. We, the KNC, from our part, believe in these talks. When they would succeed and create stability in the area and also create a positive environment among the Kurds and reduce the role of the PKK. And moreover it would create a positive relationship with the other groups (Arabs, Assyrians etcetera) and stability for the region, no threats from neighboring countries. This would be a step forward towards the political solution of Syria, namely UN Resolution 2254. We see this as good and with the guarantor of the EU and America we have confidence in this. What is important is that we can build for the future.”
“Three things will not bring stability to the area. First, the return of the regime and its security apparatus. The people will be scared and will flee. Secondly, Turkey entering with armed brigades, some brigades or parts of brigades that have practiced violations in Afrin, Ra’s al-Ayn and Tel Abyad. This will also cause people to flee. And thirdly, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its “cadros” in the area, who don’t have ways other than terror, military and weapons to pressure the people.”
You mentioned arrests of KNC executives. Could you say the names? Are they still being held?
“Currently, they released some journalists, they were detained for more than 120 days despite being just journalists. Despite not being connected to political activity, they didn’t bother anyone. They pressure the cadres of the KNC, the political cadres, the media cadres, the social cadres. They threaten the families of the Rosh Pesmergas, they threaten them by threatening their families and their children. These are children of the Rosh Pesmergas that are present in Iraqi Kurdistan. Any person affiliated with the KNC, even as a supporter cannot work. It is necessary that all the work is in their way, in their interest, in their hand, and they force all that, the disruption of work of others, with weapons. This is the way of the PKK. These terrorizing ways are known they also use them in the West. They demand ransom from a person who enters northeast Syria, or they demand ransom from a Kurdish person in Europe, ‘if you don’t give us this amount’, it will affect your family in Syria, your father or your mother. The people do not want to have their names published because the PKK will target those in Syria.”
“ What remains is, is the current situation, maybe new things will come to Syria: the withdrawing role of Russia, Iran will come in place of the Russians, the change of Jordan’s stance, the American silence and the Turkish threat to enter. And, as KNC, I give my personal opinion, and as that of the Peace Front which is composed by the KNC, the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), the Syrian Tomorrow Party and the Arab Council of Jezira and the Euphrates…”
“It’s groups of Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians, of Sunni Arabs, it’s a kind of opposition [anti Assad, and anti PYD] standing in northeast. They are not affiliated with any party and they are not cooperating with any international side. It is only working on Syria, it has a clear political vision, it’s not linked to the US, nor to Turkey and so on, but it’s a vision of shared life between the ethnic groups. This Front, if it can participate with other Syrian National powers in the area, may make an experiment to create stability and prevent Turkish intervention.”
The KNC’s Ismail denies that PKK-“cadros” [active members] left Syria as Mazloum Abdi, the head of the SDF, told international Crisis Group. [af] https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/east-mediterranean-mena/syria/sdf-seeks-path-toward-durable-stability-north-east-syria [/af] In November 2020. “It never happened. On the contrary, more PKK-fighters came in, Turkey comes because of the presence of the PKK, the PKK-cadres and the organizations linked to the PKK. When these would leave and leave the rule to the Syrian parties of the different groups, it would spare us a Turkish intervention.”
What does the Peace Front think of the upcoming new Turkish operation? And must there be an agreement first with the Americans and with the Russians.
“Of course, and there must be an agreement first with the European countries… this idea of stability will hold back Turkey. But when Turkey will enter with the brigades, such as Ra’s al-Ayn and Tel Abyad, there will be fear of the situation and more migration. There is no clean war. Whatever will happen.”
Mohamed Ismail, member of the board of the Kurdish National Council (KNC)
Do you have contact with Kurdish IDPs from Afrin who are now in the Tel Rifaat area, with the ones in the Shahba camps or with the ones that live in houses there? Not all of them are in camps, right?
“Correct. We are in contact with them, but there are two sides. The first side is afraid to return to areas where brigade violations have taken place. The other side, who want to return to Afrin, the Etilaf (Syrian political opposition) and Turkey and the brigades do not give them a chance to organize this. What happens is, individual cases of return to Afrin. Or people sneak out by smuggling, they pay money so they can go to their homes. Individual cases of return, a family, or two, or three, each time. But not in groups. There is no decision to return these people to create suitable environment. As UN resolution 2254 says, a safe environment must be created to allow the migrants and displaced persons to their villages in dignity and towns in under international supervision and under the auspices of the UN.”
And the Americans are not very active either, I understand, or because they don’t have influence there because the Russians do. I like to understand this, because the Americans know that there are Kurdish IDPs.
“The Americans they have influence over Syria. They could play a role in any part in Syria. With Turkey, with the brigades, with equipment they have. America is present with the Pentagon in other ways in northeast Syria and in other ways in the eastern Euphrates. It has knowledge of everything that happens. They know everything. They are able to exert influence, to play a role.”
But why they don’t have a role in this?
“Frankly, the human rights organizations that find the violations, the Americans support these organizations. The Americans publish the violations. And they say to some brigades if you continue with the violations you will be blacklisted.”
Why don’t the Americans influence the SDF to let the Kurds who have no money for smugglers but want go back to Afrin? Why are the Americans not using their influence on the PYD to let these Kurdish IDPs in the Tel Rifaat area, the ones that want to go back, go?
“The Americans do not put a lot of pressure on the PYD. This is also a problem. This is a problem. SDF are troops that serve the Americans to some extent, there is a relationship between them. Secondly, America doesn’t go into smaller things.”
Only the fight against ISIS?
“Of course the US is there to fight ISIS. To create general stability in the area, kind of. They call it sustainable development, a minimum of roads, electricity and water. Not the details.”
What are the current relations between the SDF and the Regime?
“It cannot do anything without the Americans. It can take some movement on the side. The Americans could allow this: “see the regime, see the Russians. There are relations between the SDF and the Russians, logistical in certain points, and the US gives a bit space, but as a result, it doesn’t do anything without US consent. Likewise for the regime.”
So, the Americans agreed that the regime entered the SDF areas? For example, in Tel Rifaat and partly at the northeast Syrian border in 2019?
“I don’t know about this part, but the SDF tries to hand over areas to the regime, and this is leaked news from their circles, and they also announce it before the Turks come, to hand over areas to the regime. The regime is preferable for the SDF in comparison to Turkey. I do not know to what degree the Americans agreed or not.”
But where did you get this information from? Was in the media, or from other sources?
“There are special sources among them. Since when Turkey announced it would enter, this was the the conversation between them. Whatever happens between them, their words come to us, and the situation between them, we hear while we are following and, on the ground there and among the people.”
How are the relations between them and the Regime now?
“Look, the relations with the regime are of two types. Relations between the PKK and the regime are ongoing, and have not stopped for a single day, and they exist at all levels. The SDF’s relations with the regime, as well as their tactics with the regime, are what the US allows them to do on the sidelines. So, they will not bother the Americans.”
Sabri OK, visited Damascus recently. Is he the mediator between the SDF and the Regime?
“He and other leaders of the PKK too. He is with Damascus.”
Is he Syrian or..?
“He is a Turkish PKK.”
Where does he live, inside Syria?
“Inside Syria, of course, how can one go to Damascus and go back.”
Is there something that I forgot to ask? Or something you want to say to the Western public about Northeast Syria?
“The situation in Northeast Syria is a really bad situation.”
“Very bad. From the security side it’s very bad that the people are afraid, really a terrorization by the PYD, of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The Asaayish [security forces], Revolutionary Youth [young thugs affiliated with the PYD, recruited among the poorest of Kurdish society], all this is capable of sowing terror among the people. That’s on the security side. The economic situation is very bad. For two years there is no harvest season because there is no rain, and this is in itself a problem for the people, it’s an agriculture area. There is an additional economic crisis. The poor one stays and the others if they get a chance to flee the area, they go to European countries, to Iraqi Kurdistan, wherever they want. The people want to flee, because the situation is very bad, there are no political horizons for this area. There are no signs of hope. Work or life, the economic situation is difficult and the security situation is difficult. Because the economic situation and the security situation are in the hands of the PKK and not the SDC. The Autonomous Administration has no financial resources, or all financial resources are in the hands of others and also in terms of security and that is a danger. There was European support for some civil areas in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. There the situation is really bad. In addition to the constant threats, of Turkey entering, all the talks are that if Turkey were to enter we will flee, there is a lot of worry and fear. That is the real situation.”
But can the young people flee from the area, or is it very difficult. Can they go through smuggling from Hasaka province to Iraqi Kurdistan?
“It’s hard, there are people who have been arrested and they have also sent them back, that’s a problem. There was a time, during the Kurdish talks that a good climate was created for an initial period, for an agreement, a climate was created but then it went…”
In which year was that?
“In 2020. Now, it is much worse.”
And the cadres of the PKK, I don’t know if you can say, the cadres of the PKK are not Syrians?
“Everyone who owns the decision is from Qandil, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, they are the ones who run the Autonomous Administration. These cadres are from the Kurds of Turkey and Iran [the Turkish and Iranian leaders of the PKK], not the Syrians. At the time of Turkish threats to enter the Kurdish areas in Syria on the border with Turkey, they organize demonstrations with photos of Abdullah Öcalan and the slogans and symbols of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. They demand his freedom. They show that they are here. This is Turkey’s biggest invitation to enter. There should be Syrian-Kurdish symbols, not from outside Syria.”